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The convenient scapegoat of the Sykes-Picot Agreement

The situation in which the Middle East found itself in 1948 was much better than the situation in which Europe found itself that year

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

One of the favorite tropes in the Middle East about why the region is so politically unstable is to blame the Sykes-Picot Agreement signed exactly 100 years ago, in which Britain and France settled on how they would partition the territory of the Ottoman Empire after their eventual defeat in WW1.

Sykes-Picot is alleged to be the reason why between Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia there exist straight-line borders. Even though these borders clearly do not map at all well to local demographic realities, as when, for example, local tribes in the borderlands between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, or Iraq and Syria would have owned lands on both sides of the border and would have moved freely between these lands.

The theory is that by drawing up these “unnatural” borders, for their own imperial and administrative purposes and with complete lack of interests for the local populations, the colonial powers set up the stage for the unstable internal politics in all these countries, and, consequently, the volatility of the region.

A somewhat inconvenient fact to this theory is that the respective delineation of the spheres of French and British influence in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and the eventual borders of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan when they gained independence after WW2, do not correspond.

But leaving that aside, the Arabs in the region have the right to be aggrieved at the Agreement, because it rescinded on all the territorial promises Britain had made to encourage them to join forces against the Ottomans. The problem is what to do with such a grievance.

Sykes-Picot is the perfect scapegoat, used over the years by political leaders to justify and excuse their own mismanagement and corruption

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

In the Middle East, Sykes-Picot has come to represent two things:

1) the ultimate example of Western colonial meddling for which all the region’s economic and political impediments today can be blamed; and for peddlers of radical Islamism, 2) the ultimate assault of Western Crusaders and Zionists against Islam, because it paved the way to Britain establishing the Mandate of Palestine which they would eventually grant for the establishment of the State of Israel.

But again, there are some pesky facts in the way of this neat theory. Unlike in Africa, where countries and local populations have every right to rile against the legacy of Western colonialism and its abhorrent history of slavery and exploitation, the Arab world has, throughout this period, been dominated not by “foreign”, Western empires, but rather by the Muslim Ottoman Empire.

The Ottoman Empire

And throughout this period, the Ottoman Empire was also the de jure and de facto Islamic Caliphate. The three decades of Western, League of Nations mandated administration, saw minimal asset stripping in the region, and substantial investment, especially in infrastructure, education and, inevitably, the oil extraction industry. Assets which have paved the way for prosperity for these countries for decades after they have gained independence.

Those assets were not squandered by Western Crusaders and Zionists. The reason why the public administration in these countries has decayed to braking-point over the recent decades, why the economies have stagnated, why the repressive regimes of Saddam Hussain and the al-Assad family have come to dominate the region, and went on to wage war against their neighbors in Iran, Kuwait and Israel, have next to nothing to do with Sykes-Picot.

The fundamental problem is that the people of these countries have failed to keep their political leaders accountable, and to demand that they be governed and administered effectively and fairly. And Sykes-Picot is the perfect scapegoat, used over the years by political leaders to justify and excuse their own mismanagement and corruption.

The situation in which the Middle East found itself in 1948 when the mandates gained independence was much better than the situation in which Europe found itself that year. These countries had reasonably well educated populations and ample natural resources, healthy infrastructure and public services.

By contrast, Europe lay in ruins – a victim of its own follies. The difference is that Europeans knew they had no one to blame for their situation but themselves. They dusted themselves off after WW2, foreswore stupid nationalism, and knuckled down to rebuild their lives, their societies, and their countries.

And in the Middle East? Everything that went well was because of how wonderful they were and everything that went badly was someone else’s fault. Specifically, Israel, America, Britain or France. The mess in the Middle East today is not a consequence of Sykes-Picot. It is a consequence of seven decades of Arabs refusing to assume responsibility for their own problems.
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Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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